Within 24 hours of Governor Bruce Rauner taking office, numerous media outlets reported on his immediate steps to rectify Illinois' dire financial situation. While his first acts as governor weren't earth-shattering, they are more than we've seen in recent years as previous administrations have allowed the state to fall further into debt.
Nonessential spending is now frozen and every executive branch agency must report on every contract and hiring decision made after mid-November. Calling it the "road to fiscal responsibility," Gov. Rauner also is putting a stop to grants and plans to sell excess state property. Click here to read more from the Daily Herald.
These moves already are making waves among politicians who argue the new governor (often criticized for his business approach) is in for a tough time as he learns to play the political game. Unilateral decisions don't work in politics, and overnight change most assuredly won't happen, especially with an Illinois deficit at an estimated $150 billion that has taken decades to grow.
In his speech earlier this month, Gov. Rauner also stressed the importance of education, citing a need to invest in adequate training for future generations. Given that legislators are considering redirecting MAP grant funds and reducing higher education funding by 20 to 30 percent, the state of education funding in Illinois remains unknown. As I have predicted for many years, it is my belief that funding for higher education will continue to evaporate over the next several years and state leaders will focus education solely on K-12. In fact, the last time most institutions have received their full 33 percent of operating funds from the state dates back to the 1980s.
Gov. Rauner has said he's open to extending the five percent personal income tax rate, as expected, but he also has plans to expand Illinois' sales tax base. These are lofty goals for a four-year term. Fixing the situation will require tough, tangible decisions and somewhere along the line cuts -- deep cuts -- should be expected.
With these cuts comes no other option for many institutions but to put the cost of higher education on the backs of students. During President Obama's State of the Union address on January 20, the President mentioned the Federal administration's proposal to offer free community college tuition. The details of the America's College Promise are, at this point, vague. Click here to read an article from Community College Daily.
What we do know is that the program will cost an estimated $60 billion and to participate, states will have to partner with the federal government and pledge to fund 25 percent of this expense. To be eligible for free tuition at a community college, students will have to maintain a 2.5 grade point average and not all college programs will qualify. Not surprisingly, the state funding portion of this proposal is likely to cause problems for a number of states, including Illinois.
Aside from funding, however, there are other concerns. If this program is implemented and community colleges throughout the country see an influx of students, are these campuses equipped to accommodate the growth? College of DuPage already is near capacity at peak hours during the week. We're currently taking steps to construct a new instructional building. We are fortunate enough to be in a financial position to allow for this type of expansion, but many schools are not. How then are they to prepare without additional funding?
I have no doubt that free community college would benefit a large number of students. Community colleges can and do change lives. (Click here for a recent Op/Ed piece written by Tom Hanks on his experience at Chabot College in California.)
Bringing "free college" to the larger national stage, however, is a huge undertaking. It will be interesting to see what the federal budget and state buy-ins reveal in terms of this proposed initiative.
Note: A portion of the following article written by College of DuPage President Dr. Robert L. Breuder was printed in an internal newsletter for COD employees on Jan. 20, 2015.